Cooney: Don't give up on Jahlil Okafor

Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) drives against New York Knicks center Kyle O'Quinn (9) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, in New York.

AS A YOUNGSTER growing up in Moffett, Okla., and Chicago, sports were a big part of Jahlil Okafor's life. His favorite sport was whichever one was in season, as he dabbled in anything and everything. That he was so much bigger allowed him to hit a ball farther, throw it harder and kick it with more power than others his age.

It was the game of basketball that came most naturally to Okafor, even when he shot up to 6-5 in the seventh grade. Though parents of opponents would demand his birth certificate as proof of age, Okafor's game didn't rely specifically on power, not the way you would think for someone who stood a full head taller than almost everyone. Sort of as a way to fit in, Okafor developed a finesse game, trying to prove he could dribble and shoot as well as the small kids, as well as spin and duck around interior defenders, instead of just bully over them.

It all came so easy to him. The game always has and that blessing allowed him to become a state champion at Whitney Young, one of the best basketball programs in Chicago. He was the national player of the year as a senior and was courted by nearly every college program in the country, eventually choosing Duke.

But the ease of the game that has given Okafor so much success also could now be his curse as he looks to navigate his way around the most difficult time on the basketball court. At 6-11 and 265 pounds, Okafor is one of the best scorers of a man his size in the entire NBA. Give him the ball anywhere inside of 12 feet from the basket and success is usually achieved, after a dizzying spin move or a one-handed reverse layup. His footwork is balletic when the ball is in his hands.

It is the exact opposite when Okafor heads to the other end and has to defend a pick-and-roll, needs to get out on a shooter or has to find a rebound that comes off the rim and travels out of his immediate area. It is there that he struggles mightily and, despite what his coaches proclaim from time to time, simply hasn't improved.

And while fans inundate email and Twitter about how bad Okafor is and how the team failed miserably in not moving him, he remains here because the market for him in last week's trade deadline simply didn't meet the expectations of president Bryan Colangelo.

So now, while the organization does the peeka-boothing with Joel Embiid, Okafor will get starter's minutes when Embiid is out, mainly sit when he's available.

But it's not a lost cause for the organization or Okafor right now. If you look hard, you can see glimpses of commendable defense, or a desire to rebound. Glimpses aren't enough, of course. And it is incumbent upon Okafor, and would be hugely beneficial to the Sixers organization, for him to make that the norm. And for all who say he can't or won't accept the challenge, maybe you're right. But the game has always come so easily to him that you get the feeling that if Okafor commits to improving those areas, sizable improvement could be gained.

He was a horrible foul shooter at Duke, but when getting regular minutes as a rookie, drained a commendable 69 percent, simply by concentrating. Told by coach Brett Brown recently to make a decision with the basketball (shoot, drive or pass) in a half-second's time, Okafor has done that more frequently of late, making it harder for double-teams to come his way. Just 21, there is so much for Okafor to still learn about the game, about himself on the floor. Perhaps becoming an admirable defender and solid rebounder could come as easily as so many other things have to Okafor on the court.

Asked of his goals to finish out the season, Okafor said: "Just play well. Play well for myself, for the team and for the city. Just give it all I have. Have that point-five mentality and make quick decisions. I'm not doing anything slow. Everybody is trying to play well for their future."

To clear his head during the recent All-Star break, Okafor spent some time at Duke, where life was so much more simple. "There, it was just going to classes, hanging with teammates and playing basketball," said Okafor, who left for the NBA after one year. "I miss that. But whenever I step on the basketball court, it's fun. I love playing the game and I am always trying to improve."

Brown has said that an NBA big man doesn't reach his potential until around the age of 27. Whether Okafor reaches that here is, most likely, doubtful. But if more performances like the 28-point, 10-rebound effort he had Saturday against the Knicks become the norm to finish out this season, the benefits won't be just Okafor's, but the Sixers organization's also, whether on future trade fronts or as a backup to Embiid.